It’s Friday night in Camden. Alcohol fuelled sounds drift into the yoga studio where I’m lying. As I roll up my mat and head out into the madness, I don’t feel the slightest bit envious of the party-goers. I’m experiencing a feeling that alcohol can’t achieve: completely relaxed, peaceful even, yet fully alert, my energy levels soaring.
Did I complete a crazy sequence of challenging yoga poses to achieve this blissful state? Nope. The moves in the two-hour workshop were simple, but there was one magic ingredient: the breath.
The class was run by Max Strom, world renowned yogi and conscious breathing advocate. Reading his book A Life Worth Breathing ignited my fascination with breath work or, as they say in the yoga world, pranayama.
Pranayama comes from the Sanskrit words prana – breath or life force, and yama – control. These days, pranayama is sometimes overlooked in favour of more Instagram friendly asana (the yoga poses). However, ignoring breath work means turning our backs on a tool with huge potential to increase our health and happiness. And don’t worry, you don’t need to attend a two-hour workshop to feel the benefits.
Why we need to practise breathing
We breathe all the time without thinking about it, so why should we bring awareness to our breath? What makes breath work and conscious breathing so beneficial?
Take a moment to notice your natural breath and how it moves in the body. Chances are, if you feel much movement at all, you feel the breath move in your chest. Take a deep breath and you might feel your chest rise and possibly the shoulders move up towards the ears. For many of us, this is how we breath for most of the day: short, shallow breaths into the chest, often irregularly. Short, shallow breathing is associated with negative emotional states and doesn’t use the full potential of our lungs.
By using conscious breath work, we can practise slower, deeper, more regularly breathing, which has a truck-load of benefits for your mind and body.
Breathing and the nervous system
Our breath is fundamentally tied to our nervous system. Our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) has two parts: the sympathetic system and the parasympathetic system.
The sympathetic system is a stress response. It diverts energy away from non-essential functions like digestion, reproduction and the immune system so the body is ready to respond to danger. It’s our ‘fight or flight’ response.
The sympathetic system can be pretty handy in situations when your life depends on moving quickly. Trouble is, there are a lot of non life-threatening situations that can activate our stress response these days: mad deadlines, angry bosses, traffic jams, constant updates from technology, violence on TV, even watching the news. When we’re constantly stressed out, our sympathetic system is over-activated, weakening our immune system and increasing inflammation. We become vulnerable to problems like high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, digestive disorders and hormonal and fertility issues.
Using conscious breathing techniques which slow and deepen the breath activates our parasympathetic system – our relaxation response. In contrast to the ‘fight or flight’ mode, the parasympathetic system brings our body into ‘rest and repair’. Our blood pressure lowers, the immune system revs up, we digest and make energy from food, damaged cells get repaired and our hormones can function properly. Pranayama can bring us back to the parasympathetic dominance our body needs.
The breath and our emotions
We all know our state of mind can affect the breath. Think about what happens to your breathing when you’re anxious. Imagine you’re just about to go into a job interview or give a public speech – your breath is probably speeding up and getting shallower and irregular.
Does this phenomenon work the other way around – can we manipulate the breath to change how we feel? The science says we can. One landmark study investigating the link between the breath and emotional states showed that regular, relaxed, deep breathing makes us feel more joyful. In contrast, shallower, faster breathing makes us feel fearful or angry. Studies have also shown the ability of breathing techniques to successfully treat anxiety, depression, PTSD and stress-related disorders.
Get started – belly breathing
The easiest place to start with pranayama is belly breathing, which helps up to breathe slower, deeper and more regularly. Here’s how to do it:
- Sit or stand comfortably. Make sure your posture is good -bring the spine tall and relax the shoulders. Make space for the breath.
- Breathe through the nose (unless you’ve got a cold). Notice the natural breath. Where do you feel it moving? Is it short, shallow or uneven?
- Place one hand on your abdomen (just above the belly button) and gradually start to lengthen and deepened the breath. Feel the belly rise on the inhale and relax on the exhale.
- Make the inhale and the exhale a similar length – you can count them if you like. Aim for about five seconds for each.
- Close the eyes and keep the focus on the breath. If your thoughts wander off, patiently bring the awareness back to the breath.
Try starting off with five minutes in the morning and five minutes of belly breathing before bed. Notice how you feel before, during and after your practice. Then feel free to do belly breathing as much as you like – sitting at your desk, on the train, or anytime you feel frazzled. You’ll slowly start to recharge your parasympathetic system and trigger happy changes in the mind and the body.
Give belly breathing a go and let me know how you get in the comments below.
Happy breathing 😌
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- Physiology of long pranayamic breathing: neural respiratory elements may provide a mechanism that explains how slow deep breathing shifts the autonomic nervous system.
- Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways
- Effect of short-term practice of breathing exercises on autonomic functions in normal human volunteers
- Respiratory feedback in the generation of emotion
- The science of breathing
- Breathing Practices for Treatment of Psychiatric and Stress-Related Medical Conditions